Miami-Dade County

Fee hikes proposed for South Florida national parks

Shark Valley in Everglades National Park includes an observation deck with sweeping views of the surrounding glades.
Shark Valley in Everglades National Park includes an observation deck with sweeping views of the surrounding glades. For the Miami Herald

A trip to one of the world’s largest wetlands is a bargain by most national park standards: just $10 a ticket to Everglades National Park, good for seven days.

Even the Badlands and Death Valley charge more.

Now park managers want to hike fees to come in line with other national parks, which typically charge more than twice as much.

The increases would be the first for the park since 1997 — when a ticket to the movies cost less than $5. It’s intended to help repair nearly two decades of wear and tear from the blistering Florida sun and wallopings from hurricanes Katrina and Wilma in 2005. The double punch left the park’s only lodgings, the barrack-like but beloved Flamingo Lodge, in ruins.

“Some of the backlog is just frightening,” said park spokeswoman Linda Friar. Flamingo alone has a $23 million laundry list of untouched maintenance projects, she said.

But the increases, which includes hikes to camping and boating fees, have drawn fire from Miami’s two senior members of Congress, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart. In a joint letter, the Republican pair said many visitors will find new fees too expensive. Of its million-plus annual visitors, a quarter are local.

“A family outing that nearly triples in price ... would prove prohibitive to many,” said the letter, which went on to criticize park officials for scheduling just two public meetings on Dec. 9 in Homestead and Dec. 15 in Key Largo. A third has since been added on Dec. 11 in Key West.

Park officials first received approval to consider fee increases in early September, Friar said. Before coming up with changes, the staff studied fees around the nation and at other local parks to calculate reasonable increases.

Everglades wants to charge a $25 entrance fee. Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota and Shenandoah outside Washington D.C. — both smaller parks — also are considering hikes to $25, Friar said. Two of the nation’s most famous and popular parks, Yellowstone and Yosemite, are proposing raising entrance fees to $30.

In addition to entrance, camping and boating fees are also being raised to match charges at nearby parks like John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, where a night of camping cost $36. Everglades back country rates would jump from $10 to $15. Front country would increase $4 to $20.

Entry fees to the remote Dry Tortugas National Park are also going up, from $5 to $10, but barely compare to the cost of getting there — either $170 by ferry or about $500 by seaplane. Camping in the shadows of Fort Jefferson would increase to $10.

To help out locals, Friar said the park has worked to provide discounts. For example, admission is free on weekends between November and March for riders who use a local trolley traveling between Homestead, the park and Biscayne National Park.

The public meetings will also help staff gauge whether the fees are reasonable, she said.

“If the public pushes back and says that’s too much, we’re open to dialogues,” Friar said.

Fees are regulated by federal law and require that 80 percent go back to the park, said John Adornato, the National Parks Conservation Association’s regional director.

“So they don’t get siphoned off to Washington, D.C. and spread somewhere else,” he said.

The money can pay for both services and facilities, which could mean more rangers on the water to help out boaters and better maintenance at back country camping areas that can get neglected. That can mean better maintained fish-cleaning stations and more regular emptying of port-a-potties, Friar said. Money can also go toward rebuilding lodgings at Flamingo. The park is in the middle of revising a request for a new concessionaire to run a mix of cabins and eco-tents, she said.

The changes incorporate more boater education classes outlined in a proposed new general management by eliminating a $60 annual boat ramp fee and creating new $50 to $100 fees tied to a boater education program. The previous fee, Friar said, unfairly charged only boaters entering through the Homestead entrance and using a ramp. Boaters traveling by water from the Gulf of Mexico and Key West entered for free.

In addition to the public meetings, comments may be emailed to Debbie_Lane@nps.gov by Jan. 15.

Public meetings:

Dec. 9, Homestead Agriculture Center, 6:30 - 8:30 p.m.

Dec. 11, Eco Discovery Center, Key West, 6:30 - 8:30 p.m.

Dec. 15, Key Largo Library, 6 - 8 p.m.

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